During this year's #16DaysofActivism, IOL puts the spotlight on those who dedicate their lives to fighting violence against women and children.
Cape Town - Vuyolwetu Dlwati has a 7-year-old daughter who he is devoted to. The possibility that she could become a victim of physical or sexual abuse is the driving force behind his determination to safeguard the children he comes into contact with daily.
Vuyo cut his professional teeth working at the Child Protection division of Cape Town Child Welfare, where he witnessed some of the worst crimes imaginable being perpetrated against children who were too young or too afraid to speak up against their abusers.
So, when an opportunity arose at the Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital for a social worker with his expertise, Dlwati grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Ten years later, Vuyo says he couldn't imagine himself doing any other job.
While the issues he deals with at Red Cross are varied, it is the work he does with children who have been abused - either physically or sexually - which bring him the greatest satisfaction. His "clients" are children up to the age of 12, but it's not unusual for him to see older children who have been brought to the hospital because they have been abused.
According to Vuyo, most of his clients come to him via the hospital's trauma unit. Usually, they are referred by nurses or doctors who suspect their injuries may not have been accidental. The team of social workers are tasked with investigating the child's home environment and assessing possible threats to their safety. Based on the outcome of this investigation, the case is either referred to authorities for further investigation or the child is released back into the care of the parent or guardian.
Often, there's a "happy ending" for the child, but sometimes things go terribly wrong despite the hard work of Vuyo and his fellow social workers. These incidents take a heavy toll on the social worker involved.
"It saddens me, especially when I go home and look at my daughter," says Vuyo. "We do everything in our power to make sure that children are safe, but sometimes ..."
The personal anguish of such tragedies comes through clearly as Vuyo recounts a case where a young boy was brought to the trauma unit with a fractured arm. An observant doctor spotted other injuries on the child's body which rang alarm bells. Vuyo was asked to interview the mother who explained that the child suffered from eczema.
Some time later the child was again admitted to hospital and this time Vuyo realised that they had to delve deeper. The child was admitted to hospital while social workers looked into his background. It was ultimately decided that it was safe to release the child back into the care of his family.
A short while later the child died, allegedly as a result of abuse in the home. The case is currently in court and Vuyo's assistance in the investigation has been instrumental in helping the State build its case. This is cold comfort for the soft-spoken dad though.
It's obvious that every child leaves a mark on Vuyo's life, and he admits that it's hard to switch off when he leaves work. "I go to gym to try and channel some of my feelings, and I leave the province when I go on holiday. Spending time with my family is an important part of my coping mechanism," says Vuyo.
Despite the mental and emotional challenges, Vuyo encourages aspiring social workers to believe that they can make a difference. "It's about helping the children. Keeping them safe is our duty. We have to do everything we can."IOL